Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Introspective Tanks: The Kelby Project

This is a post about something that happened two years ago.  It's about a communications breakdown, something I'm sure happens all the time when people try to do something creative together.  The below is partly verbatim quotes, and partly paraphrasing.  The paraphrasing, obviously, emphasizes my own point of view at the time (that being mildly frustrated and not understanding Kelby) and is while it's fairly accurate it's also edited for amusingness (which is totally a word now).  Keep that in mind, and know that as I said this is about a communications breakdown and not me trying to rip on Kelby who is a smart and creative person.

So, I got an email from Kelby asking if I would be interested in writing for a video game he and his brother are making. I was a little nervous about the idea since Kelby tanked my last creative project in a way that could only have been malice or stupidity, but I also had nothing better to do and so I said okay. This is pretty much how it went.



KELBY: The main character, for whatever reason, pilots a tank (or something like one) and is on a mission to recover a piece of stolen technology. The stolen technology was something along the lines of being an extremely potent, yet small, power source in a setting where known existence has all but run out of things to use for fuel. You have total creative freedom though. We need a plot and story and script, with a setting and history. We want multiple endings and a justification for the tank to get upgrades and bosses and monsters and different settings or zones and character development and really detailed descriptions of the vehicles and characters and environments. It's going to be like the original Zelda, but with tanks, and with a loot system like Diabolo.


ME: Huh. Okay. So... a tank game. Is it a platformer, or an RPG, or...? Like, would you be in a tank the whole time?

KELBY: RPG, absolutely. I want a lot of depth and character development. And yeah, you would be in the tank the entire time. I guess maybe you could leave the tank to go into a town.


ME: Okay. A character-driven RPG about a guy in a tank. Wow. Okay... How about this? After the end of civilization, humans are re-terraforming Earth. The main character wakes up from stasis on an orbital station to find all the officers are dead and all the failsafes are disabled. It's way past when they should have woken up and something appears to have gone wrong with the planetside facilities as well. The MC has awakened because the power plant is offline - destroyed by a meteorite. The whole station, with thousands of people in stasis, will soon crash to Earth and kill everyone. With no real idea what is going on, she wakes up a friend to work on repairs and keep her informed and then takes a little dropship (one of the only things still working, not suitable for full evacuation) and heads down to the planet to scrounge for parts. In a tank. The world is overrun with biomechanical monsters created by the haywire factories, and the handful of people descended from the surviving crews of the planetside facilities struggle to get by. The neutral townsfolk are caught in the crossfire between the quasi-religious Brotherhood of Eden that wants to destroy all civilization and the Fyodorov Society which was founded to regain control of the rogue systems and rebuild civilization but has become a paranoid group of semi-nobility that hoard technology. The main character is forced to join up with the Society to get access to a possible replacement power plant but is betrayed. Depending on player actions either the Society or the Brotherhood steals the power plant and uses it for evil, not only dooming the orbital station but those poor townsfolk as well. The player has to stop them, with four possible final bosses depending on who they stop at what point. (Evil A.I., Society guy aboard the taken-over orbital station, an endless army of robots built to dismantle entire cities, or the founder of the Brotherhood.) Along the way they'll make friends with a mechanic in town, learn who sabotaged the machines, and find descendants of their long-dead brother.

KELBY: Thanks! Good stuff, I like some of the setting stuff and the ideas you have for upgrades and whatever. Hey, how about instead of starting in space the orbital station has already crashed? Also, the character could have amnesia from the crash for added mystery!

ME: If it had already crashed then everyone would be dead. It could be a bunker, I guess.

KELBY: Bunkers are dumb. They could crash-land somehow. I mean, it's not like there's much motivation to wake the others up anyway.

ME: Well, the motivation was to save them. Anyway, without that we would need a new... plot... for the whole first part.

KELBY: Let's see if we can't come up with something a little more grand, or maybe introspective, than restoring a space station?

ME: Well, I was thinking of it more in terms of saving thousands of helpless people in a world where the population is already dangerously low - not as a maintenance issue. Also, you're the one who said it should involve a power supply.

KELBY: Yeah, see, my brother already had a plot where there was a perpetual energy source that was capable of powering a city, which was also supposed to be what was powering the vehicle. Basically, you have retrieved the power supply and vehicle and your objective is to escape. Then, in the end, he would blow up the vehicle and the power supply so that no one could have it. But I wanted to give you more artistic freedom. Anyway, I'm trying to imagine myself playing the character and I really can't imagine myself ever thinking "Oh my god, I need to save all these imaginary people that my character probably doesn't even know!" I'd like to see something more compelling.

ME: I'm going to pass on this. It sounds like you guys already have a picture in your head of what you want and I'm not getting it. Good luck though, and let me know when there's a finished version - I'd love to play.

KELBY: No, no, you're doing great! And you totally don't have to involve a power supply if you have a better idea. And really, it's not so much about a power supply specifically but more about something of great benefit to society. Really the only thing you need to do is make the ending more better. Saving a bunch of people who are asleep and don't even know they are in danger seems kind of boring to the player.

ME: Taking the initial, core motivation and saying it is boring, needs more introspection, and isn't compelling is not useful feedback because that's all stuff that gets added by the details, the execution. Either you have a specific structural problem with the plot itself (no conflict, no way to incorporate a tank, etc.) or you think I can't execute the story properly. The first one can be fixed but you would need to be more specific, the second one can't, and there would be no point in going forward. Also, just FYI, I'll never ever make yet another game where you start off with amnesia. I'm so tired of that cliché.

KELBY: The point I have been trying to get across is that the character in the story would know these people and be emotionally invested but the player would have little to no emotional attachment to them.


ME: Can you give me an example of a situation where you would have an emotional attachment to characters in a video game right from the very beginning? I can't think of one. RPGs always have a two-part plot, and you're never really invested in the starting plot. That's why in this there's the secondary plot of the evil organizations you need to stop.

KELBY: Exactly! So we would have to make sure to develop those aspects.

ME: Right.

KELBY: Right.

ME: So... why don't you like the orbital station? This whole dumb conversation started with me trying to figure out what you wanted to gain by eliminating the space station.

KELBY: I love orbital stations. They're great. But... Perhaps a Mad Max sort of environment and you happen to be one of few remaining people who understand how to utilize technology, making you the object of much attention both good and bad (especially with your fancy vehicle). Maybe people could desire the power source of your vehicle because they could power a whole city with it for ages - lost technology (lol). Also, I think it would be interesting for a player if they didn't start out knowing what planet they are at/hovering over, how long they were in stasis or why they were in stasis, that the world was being terraformed, or why it was being terraformed and they could learn about it along the way, culminating to the second or overall plot.

ME: You really want the amnesia thing, don't you?  Setting that aside because it's never going to happen, the Mad Max thing seems to raise more questions than it answers.  Why do you know how to use technology?  If nobody else does, who are the badguys?

KELBY: Everyone that wants your tank!



ME: Is a plot centered around everyone wanting to steal me lucky charms more compelling to the player than an altruistic one?  But anyway, if I'm in a tank and I'm fighting against a guy with a sword it's not a big problem.  Just... don't get out of the tank.  Actually, that's another thing: if the character loses the tank the game ends.  I would think that means they can never even let the damn thing out of their sight.

KELBY: I'm sure futuristic tanks come with locks/alarms/gps tracking etc?

 
ME: Sure, but if that works then what's the problem in the first place?  If the people who want the tank can be thwarted by locking the keys inside and skipping town it doesn't feel like much of a challenge, and if you can't just ditch the tank what exactly is it for?  Why do you need it?

KELBY: Well, I'm just giving you some ideas off the top of my head.

ME: Please don't do that. Either give me nothing, or give me specific game requirements for the story.  Listing off a lot of stuff and telling me to feel free to ignore it is confusing to me because I'm trying to make you happy.  If you need something ("The game MUST take place in a tank!" for example) just say it.  If you're attached to the idea of nobody but the main character and maybe the big boss having technology, no problem.  I can do that.  But unless that's a requirement of the game I simply don't feel like it, because that story requires more work to justify all the badguys and details of the setting.  So, just lay it out for me now before I do anything else: what are the REQUIRED details of the plot, setting, characters, and enemies?

KELBY: There are absolutely no required plot things.  Just an upgradeable vehicle, and make sure to build an emotional connection.

ME: Okay, so how about this: After the end of civilization, humans are re-terraforming Earth. The main character wakes up from stasis on an orbital station to find all the officers are dead and all the failsafes are disabled. It's way past when they should have woken up and something appears to have gone wrong with the planetside facilities as well. The MC has awakened because the power plant is offline - destroyed by a meteorite. The whole station, with thousands of people in stasis, will soon crash to Earth and kill everyone. With no real idea what is going on, she wakes up a friend to work on repairs and keep her informed and then takes a little dropship (one of the only things still working, not suitable for full evacuation) and heads down to the planet to scrounge for parts. In a tank. The world is overrun with biomechanical monsters created by the haywire factories, and the handful of people descended from the surviving crews of the planetside facilities struggle to get by. The neutral townsfolk are caught in the crossfire between the quasi-religious Brotherhood of Eden that wants to destroy all civilization and the Fyodorov Society which was founded to regain control of the rogue systems and rebuild civilization but has become a paranoid group of semi-nobility that hoard technology. The main character is forced to join up with the Society to get access to a possible replacement power plant but is betrayed. Depending on player actions either the Society or the Brotherhood steals the power plant and uses it for evil, not only dooming the orbital station but those poor townsfolk as well. The player has to stop them, with four possible final bosses depending on who they stop at what point. (Evil A.I., Society guy aboard the taken-over orbital station, an endless army of robots built to dismantle entire cities, or the founder of the Brotherhood.) Along the way they'll make friends with a mechanic in town, learn who sabotaged the machines, and find descendants of their long-dead brother.
 
KELBY: That sounds good!



So, obviously this went no further, not even because we weren't seeing eye to eye but because that's the fate of 99.999% of the "Hey dude we should totally make our own _____" ideas that me and all my nerdy friends have ever had.  But now two years have passed and I'm thinking of just making it myself... as a text adventure.

Yeah.  You read that right.